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The author spent nine years of his life in detention, most recently at Park Hotel. Now he is in America, experiencing freedom he had only imagined, and wishes his friends were also free. By Mehdi Ali.

Walking towards freedom

Mehdi Ali in Minneapolis in the United States.
Mehdi Ali in Minneapolis in the United States.
Credit: Ashraf G. Almaged

When I walked into Melbourne Airport, I felt almost free after a long time, but not completely. The Serco officers were still by my side and the people from Australian Border Force. Of course, I still had the fear that something might happen, something that would disrupt my journey. This fear filled my soul and heart.

Even so, the feeling I had at that moment was indescribable. I did not tell my family until I was sure the flight was finalised. When I did tell them, their happiness made me happy.

The closer I got to the plane, thoughts like rain on the sea came to my mind. I felt completely free as I walked down the jet bridge. Freedom is glorious and even the air smelt of freedom.

The plane eventually left Melbourne to Doha and nine years of captivity in Australia’s immigration detention became part of my past.

I always thought that when I tasted freedom a new life would start and I would be happy. Yet I was not happy and I am not happy. My life does not start from the middle, like a book being opened. It has a beginning and an end.

Starting again, forgetfulness of the past is nothing but an empty hope. It is closer to the truth to start by not forgetting the past, although it is difficult when one has experienced a very hard life after the age of seven.

It still takes courage to wake up every day and pursue one’s goals. The path that leads me to the destination is actually the path that leads me to the origin. I arrived in Doha and felt free again at Doha Airport. I walked among people and sat in a cafe. I talked to strangers.

The plane left Doha for Chicago and I was one step closer to my new home. The Doha flight to Chicago was long and difficult. Different thoughts and fantasies occupied my mind. I thought how bitter and sad it would be if this plane crashed! Or what if I got to Chicago and there was a gap in the process of staying in the United States? Or how could I increase the speed of time, because time in the sky was slow for me?

 

After more transfers, I arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I now live. One day after entering the city, I touched the snow on my skin and it was very beautiful. It covers the trees and streets and cars with its white colour.

I always thought of the winter as Hollywood movies and jazz songs, but the truth is that living in the cold is much harder than I thought. These days the snow is melting and the streets and alleys are muddy and the scent of mud can be smelt outside the house. Spring will pay a visit soon.

The end to my time in the Australian government’s torture chambers is difficult and enjoyable. Difficult because I am starting from scratch after nine years away from my life. Enjoyable because when I hold a real knife and chop the bell peppers and mushrooms I feel alive again. There were no real knives in detention.

When I wake up early in the morning I pull back the curtain and see snow and rain and the trees and the sky and the people running and I hear the sounds of birds, which is very beautiful and enjoyable. Every time I enjoy the freedom and experience of things I have forgotten, though, my heart aches.

My friends are still in prison for no crime and I cannot forget that. I got excited the day I went to the library and saw a lot of different books that I had never seen in my life. Straight away I thought of Suleiman, a very sweet person and a reader. Suleiman’s nights are still repeating in detention and he’s getting older every day.

It was the same the other day when I went to the lake outside the city. The waterfalls around the yellow hills and the squirrels playing and the semi-frozen lake and the sunset that had spread strange and beautiful colours on the ice felt like a painting very carefully and masterfully worked. It made the beauty of life shine in me, but I wish my friends could see this view.

In my opinion, forgiveness is involuntary. People do not forgive at their own choosing. I am sure that righteousness and anger torment the human soul and psyche. Yet if pardon is chosen voluntarily, I will forgive all those who work in detention centres. I do not encourage them, however, and I recommend that they do something useful for themselves that is beneficial to themselves and others.

Imprisoning people without crime is not only useless but also inhumane and they did it voluntarily. Anyway, I forgive them. Maybe time will show them the bitter part of life and maybe they will see and change their lives. What I cannot forgive, however, is a system built with the thought and purpose of oppressing people whose only crime was crossing the ocean. Remaining silent in the face of that system is itself a form of oppression.

 

I want you to imagine being in a confined space designed to punish people, not for one or two or three years but for nine years. I want to talk about people whose sufferings and frustrations have turned them into friends beyond the degree of brotherhood.

I was a 15-year-old boy who inadvertently found himself on an island with people trying to live in a democratic country. They came to live better but eventually went to a small, unknown island in the middle of the ocean. Like me, they did not know how long they should be on that island. Most hoped that their time would not increase from six months or a year.

They did not even tell us how long we should be on that island so that the flower of hope would not sprout in my heart and the hearts of other exiles. Days, months, years passed. There was no news of freedom and time of liberation for most of us.

In the fifth year, most people experienced stress and depression but had to keep moving. At the height of our frustrations, we revisited and fantasised about freedom on most of the days.

The friendships were so deep and real that we did not expect some to taste freedom and some to stay in prison. We became like a family even in our dreams. We paint the image of freedom as if we were together. I did not practise for my individual freedom. During those nights and days of misery, in my imagination I painted the freedom of all.

During those sad years, we sat together and immersed ourselves in the world of thought and imagination and planned to spend time together when we reach freedom. To the free, our wishes would not seem like much, but they were very valuable to us and it was enjoyable to review them together.

We wished to gather together like the rest of the freed people and go to the cinema or to a football game or theatre as a group. The idea of freedom together gave a sweet taste to our desire but the thought of some being left behind and remaining in detention made our dream bitter.

What has been bothering me for nine years and still bothers most of the remaining people in detention is the indecision and failure to announce the time of sentencing. We spend every day of detention, years, with no limit on our sentences. We do not know when it will end or why. This is the worst situation imaginable.

The human psyche is severely damaged in these conditions. It distorts us.

 

In a few days, I am going to see Nathalie Stutzmann at the Minnesota Orchestra Hall. She is going to give a performance of Tchaikovsky and I am looking forward to experiencing one of my fantasies. I wish my friends could also enjoy their favourite music. This is what I mean when I say freedom can be bitter and sad.

As I write this, a man I call Mr T comes to my mind. One day we were sitting in the garden in the middle of Brisbane detention centre and we were talking and he said he wished that he could kiss his darling and read her a poem by a poet whose name I cannot remember. The line he wanted to say was “Send me apples and bite one of them.” Mr T is still in detention. He has no apples. He said: “The poet was also far from his beloved.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Tasting freedom".

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Mehdi Ali is a refugee from Ahwaz, Iran, who spent nine years in immigration detention in Australia. He now lives in the US.

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